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Wild horses on Sable Island. (Zoe Lucas)
Wild horses on Sable Island. (Zoe Lucas)

Parties “pull a fast one” to sneak through national park bill Add to ...

Time was running out, and Elizabeth May was standing in the way.

She was objecting to fast-tracking a bill to create a national park in Nova Scotia – an unusual position for a Green Party leader, when all other parties supported the notion. But Ms. May says Bill S-15, creating Sable Island National Park, sets a dangerous precedent and could open the door to drilling in national parks.

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Only unanimous consent would allow the bill to be fast-tracked to third reading Tuesday morning, hours before the house would ultimately adjourn for the summer. Ms. May was the sole MP to block it just after 10 a.m., and her standoff threatened to stall the bill altogether. Months would pass before it could be pushed through again.

New Democrat Environment critic Megan Leslie, whose riding includes Sable Island, had pleaded with Ms. May to no avail, arguing any protection was better than none at all. Ms. May was playing hardball.

“Megan and I were – well, enraged doesn’t quite describe it,” said Michelle Rempel, a Conservative MP and parliamentary secretary to the Environment Minister. The bill was a rare cross-partisan point of agreement. “For once, you had this rare show of the way things can go in this place, and she blocks it,” a fuming Ms. Rempel said of Ms. May.

Nonetheless, Ms. May’s stand left the bill’s advocates in a bind, but with an opportunity: they simply needed the Green Party leader to leave the chamber. And Ms. May had a meeting to go to.

However, she also had an ally – outnumbered MPs often stick together. In keeping with that cooperative spirit, Louis Plamondon, one of five Bloc Quebecois MPs, agreed to cover for Ms. May while she attended another meeting Tuesday. As long as one of them was in the house and could object, Ms. Leslie, Ms. Rempel and others wouldn’t get their unanimous consent. Therefore, the bill wouldn’t be fast-tracked and it would either jeopardize a looming deal to adjourn or simply not pass in time.

So, they waited. Debate continued on another bill. Then, around 12:30 p.m., Mr. Plamondon stood up. “Poor Louis Plamondon turned his back and went into the opposition lobby for just a minute,” says Ms. May, who says she regrets not cancelling her meeting.

The Conservatives pounced. “We just saw him go, and we were like, alright, giddy up,” Ms. Rempel recalls.

Conservative MP Mike Wallace stood up suddenly on a point of order, and proposed Bill S-15 be fast-tracked. By the time Mr. Plamondon had returned, the unanimous consent motion had been passed.

“Unanimous consent isn’t like a vote, there’s no notice given. If you can pull a fast one, and you’re prepared to be ruthless and pull a fast one, you do it. That’s what they did,” Ms. May said.

Ms. Rempel, though, was celebrating the manoeuvre. “It was just old fashioned parliamentary procedure, and it worked,” she said.

Ms. May said she opposed the bill because it creates an “outrageous precedent” for industrial activity inside a national park. ExxonMobil holds rights to a gas field that includes the park, and the bill gives the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board continued regulatory authority within the park, requiring nothing more than token consultation with Parks Canada. The bill also allows low-impact seismic surveying and directional drilling, raising the prospect of a company drilling under the island from offshore.

“What they’ve now done is to accept a national park status area, call it a national park reserve, and within it enshrine the rights of a body whose mandate is to expand oil and gas development and give that body jurisdiction over exploratory activities within a national park, drilling under a national park,” Ms. May said, later adding: “My larger concern is that we have now degraded the gold standard of protection, which is a national park.”

She would have given unanimous consent if the bill banned all seismic testing. Ms. Leslie said the NDP had put forward similar amendments banning surface exploration and directional drilling, but both moves were defeated. Meanwhile, she heard from environmental groups who said any protection for Sable Island was better than no protection.

“They said, first and foremost, pass this bill and get this island [national] park protection,” Ms. Leslie said. “…It’s not as good as [a rule saying] no oil and gas exploration, but I think it’s a still a win.”

With no objection from an absent Ms. May or absent Mr. Plamondon (who didn’t respond to an interview request), the bill moved onto third reading. It passed third reading later Tuesday evening before receiving royal assent Wednesday. It is now law. Sable Island is Canada’s 43 national park.

Editor's Note: An earlier of this story incorrectly referred to Conservative MP Mike Wallace as Mark.

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